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The "Art" of the Reel

How a successful softeware developer turned himself into an independent filmaker


Published February 18, 2004 at 1:47 p.m.

This is a story that begs the question: Is there any enterprise that Art Bell would not try? The Burlington resident is like a well-adjusted version of Zelig, the title character in Woody Allen's 1983 parody about a human chameleon who appears at every historic event of his time.

But the 47-year-old techno-wizard-turned-filmmaker from Toronto is neither amorphous nor a passive observer. Bell seems driven: When he sets his mind to something, watch out.

Two of his shorts -- "Ice" and "Only a Farmer" -- are booked at several upcoming cinematic showcases. The latter is scheduled at Estrogen Fest in Burlington this weekend. Both of them will unspool at Montpelier's Green Mountain Film Festival in March and the Lake Placid Film Festival in June.

Bell has established a state-of-the-art studio in the Queen City. The logo for his one-man production company, Dreamlike Pictures, incorporates a photograph of him as a bright-eyed toddler. Back then he was dubbed Buzz by a grandparent "because I was always buzzing around. People who've known me for a long time call me Buzz."

He's still buzzing. Bell is absolutely wired, talking so fast about past and future film projects it's as if he's transcended the space-time continuum. A veritable Bellapalooza, however, his saga is more complex than the standard directorial command of "Lights! Camera! Action!" would indicate.

Let's start in the mid-1980s, when Bell and a trio of college friends in Canada launched a 3-D software company called Alias. Eureka! "We were the first to do this," Bell explains. "The technology we patented didn't exist yet elsewhere. We made the virtual world possible. Prior to us, if you wanted this done, you had to contact the military."

Within a decade, his pioneering effort had 350 employees at offices in 18 cities worldwide. Prestigious customers included Industrial Light and Magic, ABC, NBC and CBS. Alias eventually earned three Academy Awards for technical excellence.

"I read that our software has been used in 26 of the 50 top-grossing movies of all time," Bell says, adding that Alias is an important component of such blockbusters as Toy Story 2 and Terminator 2. Remember the liquid-metal villain in the 1991 Schwarzenegger sci-fi flick? Alias know-how.

Bell's job as vice-president of research and design also meant spending months in Tokyo each year to work on a special-effects project. It was a high-flying existence. But the downside of success prompted him to leave it all behind. "I was arrogant and ungrateful," he acknowledges. "I told myself a thousand times I'd get back and smell the roses some day. I hadn't felt joy in years."

Fast forward to Vermont, where he had been coming to ski since age 4. Bell knew some people at Shelburne Farms and relocated there in 1993. For more than two years, he earned $5 an hour as an apprentice for Beeken-Parsons, a business on the property that turns out custom wood furniture. He rented a house nearby. It was a transformation to the simple life. "Walking alone one night," Bell says, "I saw a fox, and couldn't believe how happy I felt."

But Bell's innate entrepreneurial spirit reasserted itself. "Glad as I was to be a woodworker, I just couldn't stop myself once I had the idea for another little computer company. We called it American Happyware," he says. The Vermont endeavor, which would last 18 months, designed an external software appliance with multiple uses, "like a Swiss Army knife" for accessing email addresses, Web links, movies and such.

During this time, Bell was also making frequent trips to New York City to ghostwrite a book on animation with Kit Laybourne. His wife, Geraldine Laybourne, who had been a powerhouse at the Nickelodeon network, purchased American Happyware "lock, stock and barrel" from Bell and his colleagues in 1998. That business deal included Oprah Winfrey as a key investor, and the venture, renamed Oxygen Media, became a Manhattan operation that focused on women's issues.

"We were supposed to be equally a cable television and Internet company," says Bell, who was hired as chief technology officer. "But the balance shifted toward programming [the Oxygen cable channel] and away from the Web aspect, which is now a glorified TV guide."

Tired of commuting, in 2001 he decided to open a wireless company, Moeo, in the Queen City. It proved to be Bell's "first official failure." But before long, Bell began to explore his passion for movies, beginning with courses at Burlington College and at The Maine Workshops in Rockport.

His debut personal film, "Ice," is a meditative glimpse of two men skating on frozen Lake Champlain. Bell shot the four-minute piece last February with his Canon Digital Elf, "a point-and-shoot camera that's the size of a pack of cigarettes," he explains. "I've been asked, ‘How did you get crews and dollies out onto the ice?' I pull the camera out of my back pocket and tell them, ‘I did it with this.'"

One of the mini-film's "stars," Shelburne Farms woodlands manager Marshall Webb, remembers the skating excursion as rather uneventful. "Three of us were just out on the lake late in the day," he says. "It's not like Art was the director. It just happened. The light was pretty flat. It didn't seem all that dramatic, but turned out to be pretty magical."

Bell enhanced the magic with the addition of a song by the band Sigor Ros from -- where else? -- Iceland. A CBS producer who was also a friend of a friend asked to broadcast "Ice" on the "Sunday Morning" show. But there was no time to secure the music rights, so Bell had to say no.

His next project was the more ambitious, seven-minute "Only a Farmer." In it, nine women are seen tending their livestock and tilling the soil while reciting a poem about the agricultural experience. The anonymous verse had been found by one of his subjects tacked to the wall of her Waterbury house, and "It just hit me in the chest," says Bell, whose two sisters are farmers.

His cinematic learning curve has been sharp. Before taking a documentary camera course at the Maine school last September, Bell had never even heard of cinema verite. "I learned how to be the fly on the wall," he notes.

A recent project required a more reportorial approach. "About three days before the Iowa caucuses, the Dean campaign called me," Bell says. "They knew he wasn't going to do too well there and wanted something that would make him feel good about why he decided to run for president in the first place. So, I drove around New Hampshire for two days interviewing volunteers."

In the four-minute "You Have the Power," a diverse group of Deaniacs talks about the "energy and excitement" inspiring the candidate's grassroots supporters. "I was told he was tired and needed to get recharged," Bell says of the former governor. "He would come out on the stage each time, get the applause, this short would roll on big screens, he would watch it, get [back in touch with] some of why he was doing all this. It was for Howard and for the loyalists."

At the moment, Bell -- who has dual citizenship -- is immersed in shooting and editing an industrial documentary about the largest steel-recycling mill in the world. The plant is run by 130 Russians in Hamilton, Ontario.

When that project is finished in the spring, Bell intends to head back to Rockport for more studies. "I'll take a 16-mm production course," he says, referring to equipment that dwarfs his tiny Elf. In addition, he is determined "to work on my storytelling skills. My goal is to eventually do a narrative feature."

First, though, he wants to make a 20-minute film based on footage shot with his Elf while traveling. That visual component will eventually mesh with scenes of two people conversing inside the car. But Bell does not consider himself a writer, so he's looking for a script.

"Film is perfect for both Art's geeky and creative sides," suggests Webb, who is a still photographer. "There are endless ways to string images together, and he knows the tools so well. He has a determination to keep after it, to keep learning, to keep getting better."

The Zelig moments that Bell encounters along the way are a bonus and, perhaps, a sign of perpetual Buzz reinvention. "I do follow my curiosity, deeply," he acknowledges. "I think I have this dynamo in me when I feel bigger things coming. There is no path in life. The best you're going to get is an inkling that you have to run with. And I've run with my inklings maybe four, five, six times."